Key West City Manager Greg Veliz, who was promoted to that position in May 2019, is having active discussions with the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority to fill its open deputy executive director position.

The news came out unexpectedly at the end of a recessed meeting of the Key West City Commission on Thursday night, when Commissioner Greg Davila asked Veliz if he was being “pilfered” by a potential competing employer.

“I guess I’m putting him on the spot because I think it needs to be public. It’s something we would need to discuss,” Davila said during the commissioner comments portion of Thursday’s meeting.

Veliz acknowledged “the rumors are running rampant” and said there have “been a number” of positions with other organizations he has been approached about, including a job currently open. He did not identify that position at the commission meeting but confirmed in a conversation with The Key West Citizen on Friday morning that the job he is interested in is the deputy executive director slot at the FKAA.

That position was most recently filled by Kerry Shelby, who held it for 17 years. Shelby was promoted to the top executive director position at FKAA on Jan. 26.

Veliz said he is considering another job primarily because of money. His current $180,000 salary, including benefits, is below comparable positions in Monroe County, he said. The highest-paid position in Key West City government is City Attorney Shawn Smith, who makes $215,641 plus an additional $4,041 in special pay for transportation. Roman Gastesi, Monroe County Administrator, who has been in that position for 13 years, makes $232,540. Lynne Tejeda, Chief Executive Officer at Keys Energy Service, makes a reported $224,000. The Key West Chamber of Commerce executive vice president position salary is $130,000.

The open deputy executive director position at FKAA is listed at $190,000-$200,000.

“When a job comes up that pays more than I make, and I feel I’m qualified, I’ve got ears. I’ve got eyes,” Veliz said Friday. His current city contract expires in August 2022.

Mayor Teri Johnston agreed that Veliz is underpaid for the executive level of the city manager position. She said Veliz’ pay package mirrored that of his predecessor, former City Manager Jim Scholl. But Scholl negotiated his salary knowing he had full retirement benefits from the U.S. Navy, where he served for several years, Johnston said. Scholl came out of retirement to take the city manager position but was able to keep his full health and pension benefits from the Navy.

“This [Thursday revelation of Veliz’ interest in the FKAA job] enlightens not just the commission but the community. We’re not paying enough for skill sets,” Johnston said.

There were a few observers who suggested the public reveal was staged to position Veliz for a potentially large salary boost just before fiscal year 2021-22 budget planning begins this summer. It is highly unusual for salary discussions to be brought up in a commission meeting unless a specific job contract is on the agenda for approval. And City Attorney Smith was quick to jump in once Davila had brought up Veliz’ possible departure. Smith told commissioners he had been discussing the issue of salary with Veliz over the “last few days.”

“Just to allay any fears of the commission … he [Veliz] is certainly not looking for an increase in this fiscal year. Any increase in salary would come in the budgetary process in the next fiscal year,” Smith said, encouraging commissioners to meet individually with Veliz over the next two weeks.

The last time a “bombshell,” as Johnston called Thursday’s discussion, came up in a public commission meeting was in 2014, when a leading question from then-Commissioner Tony Yaniz asked Smith about whether he was considering resigning as city attorney. Smith confirmed he was and went into a lengthy, tear-filled tirade against then-City Manager Bob Vitas, saying he could not work with him. As a result, 10 days later Vitas agreed to a separation agreement rather than face a vote of no confidence. He had less than a year left on his contract and was paid $120,000 to leave immediately.

Veliz denied that the public discussion was a maneuver to notify commissioners he wanted a pay increase.

“This was never meant to be a bargaining tool,” he said Friday. “It was never meant to be anything. The nature of the [city manager] position is it plays out in public.”

The mayor said there has not been a city-wide staff salary compensation review since 2013, when the lowest-paid city employees were brought up to a $15-an-hour minimum. She said she will push for an in-depth review of both salaries and skill sets of all city staffers. With a new three-year strategic plan under development, it is important to ensure city employees have the training and skills necessary to carry out that plan, Johnston said.

“We some hefty goals out there. Do we have the right people who are fairly compensated with the skill sets to achieve those goals,” she asked.

Increasing salaries for multiple staff positions in City Hall could present a significant funding challenge. One way to boost salaries across the board would likely require a tax increase, something neither commissioners nor property owners want. Another potential area for budget-cutting is overtime. There are extensive overtime additions to salaries in many departments, including police and fire, that often boost annual employee pay above their base salary by a large percentage.

Another alternative could be to increase pay but to permanently reduce the size of the city employment rolls. Currently, there are 525 Key West City employees. Some officials, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of potential layoffs, are questioning whether running the city could be done with fewer employees, possibly 400 or less.

Johnston said she is not considering reducing the size of the city payroll. However, she said she wants to restore staff training programs to make sure they have the skills necessary to carry out the new strategic plan.

“Are we able to retain our quality people and also attract new people with the skill sets to accomplish the goals we have out in front of us,” she asked.

At 59 years old, there had been rumors Veliz was heading toward retirement himself. He is building a new home in Chiefland, Florida, on the Gulf coast north of Tampa. However, Veliz said it is not a retirement home per se but a place for his family to gather.

As for how much longer he wants to work before retiring, Veliz said, “I figure I have 10 more good ones [years] left in me.”